Tuesday, March 31, 2015

Does the Devil really exist?

I've been reading Of Water and the Spirit: A Liturgical Study of Baptism by Fr. Alexander Schmemann for Lent, which is the first book Fr. Athanasius Farag recommends on the topic of baptism.  (Schememann was also Fr. Tom's father-in-law by the way :,-) )  This book is mind blowing.  It is a very short book, only 150 pages, and yet in so few words it makes everything begin to make sense.  One section in particular has been very enlightening for me, the section in which he discusses the prayer of the renunciation of the devil in the baptismal liturgy.  It is so clear and helpful that I wanted to share some excerpts of it.

Here is one that discusses the Orthodox concept of evil/demons/Satan/dark powers:
The "modern man,” even an Orthodox, is usually quite surprised when he learns that the baptismal liturgy begins with words addressed to the Devil. The Devil indeed has no place in his religious outlook; he belongs to the panoply of medieval superstition and to a grossly primitive mentality. Many people, including priests, suggest therefore that exorcisms simply be dropped as "irrelevant” and unbecoming to our enlightened and "modern” religion. As for the non-Orthodox, they go even further: they affirm the need to "demythologize” the New Testament itself, to "liberate” it from an antiquated worldview—of which "demonology” is precisely an essential expression—which only obscures its authentic and eternal message. 
It is not our purpose to outline, even superficially, the Orthodox teaching concerning the Devil. In fact, the Church has never formulated it systematically, in the form of a clear and concise "doctrine.” What is of paramount importance for us, however, is that the Church has always had the experience of the demonic, has always, in plain words, known the Devil. If this direct knowledge has not resulted in a neat and orderly doctrine, it is because of the difficulty, if not impossibility, rationally to define the irrational. And the demonic and, more generally, evil are precisely the reality of the irrational. Some theologians and philosophers, in an attempt to explain and thus to "rationalize” the experience and the existence of evil, explained it as an absence: the absence of good. They compared it, for example, to darkness, which is nothing but the absence of light and which is dispelled when light appears. This theory was subsequently adopted by deists and humanists of all shades and still constitutes an integral part of our modern worldview. Here the remedy against all evil is always seen in "enlightenment” and "education.” For example: explain to teenagers the mechanics of sex, remove the "mystery” and the "taboos,” and they will use it rationally, i.e. well. Multiply the number of schools and man, who is naturally good, will ipso facto live and behave rationally, i.e. well.
Such however is certainly not the understanding of evil in the Bible and in the experience of the Church. Here evil is most emphatically not a mere absence. It is precisely a presence: the presence of something dark, irrational and very real, although the origin of that presence may not be clear and immediately understandable. Thus hatred is not a simple absence of love; it is the presence of a dark power which can indeed be extremely active, clever and even creative. And it is certainly not a result of ignorance. We may know and hate. The more some men knew Christ, saw His light and His goodness, the more they hated Him. This experience of evil as irrational power, as something which truly takes possession of us and directs our acts, has always been the experience of the Church and the experience also of all those who try, be it only a little, to "better” themselves, to oppose "nature” in themselves, to ascend to a more spiritual life. 
Our first affirmation then is that there exists a demonic reality: evil as a dark power, as presence and not only absence. But we may go further. For just as there can be no love outside the "lover,” i.e. a person that loves, there can be no hatred outside the "hater,” i.e. a person that hates. And if the ultimate mystery of "goodness” lies in the person, the ultimate mystery of evil must also be a personal one. Behind the dark and irrational presence of evil there must be a person or persons. There must exist a personal world of those who have chosen to hate God, to hate light, to be against. Who are these persons? When, how, and why have they chosen to be against God? To these questions the Church gives no precise answers. The deeper the reality, the less it is presentable in formulas and propositions. Thus the answer is veiled in symbols and images, which tell of an initial rebellion against God within the spiritual world created by God, among angels led into that rebellion by pride. The origin of evil is viewed here not as ignorance and imperfection but, on the contrary, as knowledge and a degree of perfection which makes the temptation of pride possible. Whoever he is, the "Devil” is among the very first and the best creatures of God. He is, so to speak, perfect enough, wise enough, powerful enough, one can almost say divine enough, to know God and not to surrender to Him—to know Him and yet to opt against Him, to desire freedom from Him.  But since this freedom is impossible in the love and light which always lead to God and to a free surrender to Him, it must of necessity be fulfilled in negation, hatred and rebellion. 
These are, of course, poor words, almost totally inadequate to the horrifying mystery they are trying to express. For we know nothing about that initial catastrophe in the spiritual world— about that hatred against God ignited by pride and that bringing into existence of a strange and evil reality not willed, not created by God. Or rather, we know about it only through our own experience of that reality, through our own experience of evil. This experience indeed is always an experience of fall: of something precious and perfect deviated from and betraying its own nature, of the utterly unnatural character of that fall which yet became an integral and “natural” part of our nature. And when we contemplate evil in ourselves and outside ourselves in the world, how incredibly cheap and superficial appear all rational explanations, all "reductions” of evil to neat and rational theories. If there is one thing we learn from spiritual experience, it is that evil is not to be "explained” but faced and fought. This is the way God dealt with evil. He did not explain it. He sent His Only-Begotten Son to be crucified by all the powers of evil so as to destroy them by His love, faith and obedience.

Here is another, discussing the relevance of the act of renunciation:

When this rite of renunciation came into existence, its meaning was self-evident to the catechumen as well as to the entire Christian community. They lived within a pagan world whose life was permeated with the pompa diaboli, i.e. the worship of idols, participation in the cult of the Emperor, adoration of matter, etc. He not only knew what he was renouncing; he was also fully aware to what a "narrow way," to what a difficult life—truly "non-conformist” and radically opposed to the "way of life” of the people around him— this renunciation obliged him. 
It is when the world became "Christian” and identified itself with Christian faith and Christian cult that the meaning of this renunciation began to be progressively lost so as to be viewed today as an archaic and anachronistic rite, as a curiosity not to be taken seriously. Christians became so accustomed to Christianity as an integral part of the world, and to the Church as simply the religious expression of their worldly "values,” that the very idea of a tension or conflict between their Christian faith and the world faded from their life. And even today, after the miserable collapse of all these so-called "Christian” worlds, empires, nations, states, so many Christians are still convinced that there is nothing basically wrong with the world and that one can very happily accept its "way of life,” all its values and "priorities,” while fulfilling at the same time one's "religious duties.” Moreover, the Church herself and Christianity itself are viewed mainly as aids for achieving a successful and peaceful worldly life, as spiritual therapy resolving all tensions, all conflicts, giving that "peace of mind” which assures success, stability, happiness.  The very idea that a Christian has to renounce something and that this "something” is not a few obviously sinful and immoral acts, but above all a certain vision of life, a "set of priorities,” a fundamental attitude towards the world; the idea that Christian life is always a "narrow path” and a fight: all this has been virtually given up and is no longer at the heart of our Christian worldview. 
The terrible truth is that the overwhelming majority of Christians simply do not see the presence and action of Satan in the world and, therefore, feel no need to renounce "his works and his service.” They do not discern the obvious idolatry that permeates the ideas and the values by which men live today and that shapes, determines and enslaves their lives much more than the overt idolatry of ancient paganism. They are blind to the fact that the "demonic” consists primarily in falsification and counterfeit, in deviating even positive values from their true meaning, in presenting black as white and vice versa, in a subtle and vicious lie and confusion. They do not understand that such seemingly positive and even Christian notions as "freedom” and "liberation,” "love,” "happiness,” "success,” "achievement,” "growth,” "self-fulfillment”— notions which truly shape modern man and modern society, their motivations and their ideologies—can in fact be deviated from their real significance and become vehicles of the "demonic.” 
And the essence of the demonic is always pride, pompa diaboli. The truth about "modern man” is that whether a law-abiding conformist or a rebellious non-conformist, he is first of all a being full of pride, shaped by pride, worshiping pride and placing pride at the very top of his values. 
To renounce Satan thus is not to reject a mythological being in whose existence one does not even believe. It is to reject an entire "worldview” made up of pride and self affirmation, of that pride which has truly taken human life from God and made it into darkness, death and hell. And one can be sure that Satan will not forget this renunciation, this rejection, this challenge. "Breathe and spit upon him!” A war is declared! A fight begins whose real issue is either eternal life or eternal damnation. For this is what Christianity is about! This is what our choice ultimately means! 


  1. Hi there, I really enjoyed your blog. This is coming from a non-religious perspective however I still found the excerpts you picked out to be very interesting. I will continue reading more of your blogs to get more suggestions to add to my reading list. I also have a blog if you'd like to read something. mrwriterblog.wordpress.com

    1. Aw thank you so much Ahmed! And thank you for commenting!

      I just took a quick look at your blog and I already love all the topics you write about. I'm definitely going to be following your writing as well!

      I don't actually blog about books/excerpts as much as I should but there is so much I can recommend to you! Let me know what you're interested in.

      Are there any books in particular that have been really influential in shaping your thoughts on religion/philosophy/etc?

  2. That's very sweet of you to say, Martha. I was hesitant to make a blog as I wasn't so sure if people actually read it but I enjoy writing so much that I'll just keep on writing. And now that I have a new "fan" it helps :) Well I recently read "A Beginner's Guide to Reality" (I forget the author) and but that really helped open my eyes a bit to the real world and the whole "Is this physical or spiritual world I'm living in?" and parts of "The Prince" by Machiavelli. Also one of my personal favorite Ethics books is "The Right Thing to Do" by James and Stuart Rachels right now I'm reading "The Communist Manifesto (for just cause) as well as "The Trial of Socrates"

    Feel free to send me an email so we can continue our conversation there mr.sharma1220@gmail.com